Comeback Stories

Todd English on Returning to Boston and Reopening His Flagship

Todd English, pausing to reflect.
Todd English, pausing to reflect. Photo: 451

Todd English has gotten a drubbing in the national press, and, yes, Grub Street has happily chronicled the fallout. The lawsuits! The rent woes! That wacky Groupon deal! Back home in Boston, he was derided for failing to quickly refurbish Olives after a fire shuttered his 23-year-old flagship two years ago. But Teflon Todd is back, people: Olives is open once more, with a bigger bar and more small plates. And English is in the kitchen, promising to make it a priority. Grub Street caught him in a fleeting quiet moment, primed for a comeback and happy to chat.

What can people expect from the new Olives?
It’s a little more subtle, with smaller portions and a bigger bar area. When I go out to eat now, I like to have small bites of things, a cocktail, a glass of wine, sitting up high, that’s it. You won’t necessarily have to sit down for a whole three hours or a two-hour meal period … It’s almost like less is more. But not less quality. I don’t feel good when I eat [too much] steak. That’s how I find the world eating. I’m still focusing on the Mediterranean bent. The whole premise of Olives is to cook food where olives grow, with a combination of the usual ingredients and unusual ingredients, with classic flavors redone in new ways.

The media has been tough on you lately. Do you feel pressure?
What? Not Grub Street! [Laughs.] I think there’s certainly expectations and there’s always that pressure, especially [in Boston] because of its history and how long Olives has been here and in that it has been closed longer than I wanted it to be. It’s a new beginning. This is one of the reasons I wasn’t in a huge rush to open it up. I wanted to give it the right feeling and give it something that is more in tune with the neighborhood. [Boston] has become such an amazing food town.

So you’re “back”?
I don’t know that I ever left.

Contrast the old Todd English and Olives with the new.
The old Olives was classic and steeped in tradition. This is lighter, brighter, futuristic, exploring all the great Mediterranean flavors.

Will we see you in the kitchen? What about your other restaurants?
I am still here. I have a Home Shopping Network event this weekend, but other than that I am here over the next week or two, and throughout the summer, a lot. I’m in Boston two to three days a week anyway, my kids are here, my life is here. I think a lot of chefs travel a lot because that’s part of what’s out there: events, charity work, etcetera. [James Klewin, English’s longtime executive chef, will handle day-to-day duties.]

So the age-old battle: Boston versus New York. You have restaurants in both cities …
There is some amazing food in Boston. It has its own individual expression. I’ve always felt that in a sense Boston doesn’t necessarily want to be trendy. Because of what Boston is, it has its traditions, and that gives it more individuality and the chefs develop their own personality and viewpoint as opposed to keeping up with the Joneses.

Which chefs do you most admire here?
Barbara [Lynch], Ken [Oringer], Lydia [Shire]. It’s nice to see Tiffani [Faison] back in the scene. I can’t say it’s just one person. But I do miss eating at Carl’s Pagoda in Chinatown. Do you remember that place?

So you’re not angry at Boston?
I have always loved the city. It gave me my start. I’ll never badmouth Boston, and I love it here. I will always want to look at Boston as the town that started me and made me.

You’re a busy guy: Nothing else in the works around here?
I don’t have anything in the works. [At Olives], the business is good. And the locals are coming back.

Todd English on Returning to Boston and Reopening His Flagship